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Life at the tip of the spear, Part One

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A special note of introduction.

Nearly a year ago, my editor rang me up and asked if I’d be interested in interviewing a former British SAS soldier and security contractor who’d worked extensively in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan and whom now lives and works in Melbourne as a communications expert.  I of course said yes without hesitation.

In an interview setting, it’s not often that you establish a genuinely warm and personal rapport with a subject.  It’s easy enough to maintain a professionally cordial interaction, but real personal affinity is rare.  I can’t speak for Garth, but the fact that one interview turned into a series conducted over the course of eight months (including a particularly overwhelming session with his wife Kate—stay tuned!), attests to at least some kind of mutual enjoyment of our time together.  Personally, I can’t help but feel an affection for someone who’s spent a great deal of time sharing the intimate details of their life so that we might learn something.   I also can’t help but feel a great responsibility to relay the information shared with the same plain honesty as it was offered.  As such, the series that follows is simply the story as told to me and nothing more.

Part One:

From boy soldier to covert intelligence

When he arrives at my studio, Garth’s presence is formidable.  A large, fit Brit in his early 40s, one is immediately impressed with the sharpness behind the eyes and the confidence of his bearing.  He possesses that hard-to-define quality that makes you feel as if he’s seeing things you don’t—the kind of guy that walks into a room and owns it without even the slightest hint at macho posturing.  As we introduce ourselves, his quick-to-laugh nature reveals itself and we slip into a conversation that will ultimately lead to many hours together over the course of the year.

Brett Hamm: So, how did you get involved in military life to begin with?

Garth Jones: My first…my real father was in the military.  He was a mountain and arctic warfare instructor in the 60s and also a jungle warfare instructor.  He was, in the 60s, in the Malay campaign that was on.  So we did a lot of travelling around.  And the cold war was really kicking off big time.  So he was posted to Germany and then Malaysia, where I was born.  So I grew up around the army basically— constantly in different places, postings, multiple secondary schools.  And then my parents split up and my mum married a guy from the Special Air Service, from Hereford.  So my last few years of child life, while I was at school in Germany, he was my stepfather.  I was quite interested in everything he did.  I was just a kid.  And then, military schools, when you’re an army brat and you go to base schools— which are a different sort of structure—the army come round and they recruit.  At the time they had a platform they were using called Boy Soldier, Junior Leader.  What it means is they get you when you’re sixteen and a bit silly and you’ll sign up for anything.  They do sixteen to eighteen at a college and then you go to the main army.  So I joined as a junior soldier, went to a college for communications—so the Royal Signals Corps—where you study satellite and all that stuff.

At 18 you get a chance to volunteer for different units depending on how you’ve performed.  There’s fifty-odd candidates from each troop of Junior Leaders.  Most of you [would] end up in Germany at that time—we’re talking 1984.  I managed to skip Germany because I’d just been there for umpteen years as a kid. So I volunteered for a unit with a couple of other buddies and we got in.  It was called a ‘spearhead’ unit.  It’s a global communication unit that the British government sends to disaster areas.

BH: Like a “first in” kind of thing?

GJ: First in, set up [communications] so everybody else can come in off the back of you.  The way it worked was we did like Solomon Islands for disasters at the time, Belize, Guatemala.  So at the age of eighteen I did Kenya, Singapore, probably nine countries between the ages of eighteen and nineteen and a half!

So I did that for three and a bit years and then I was looking at another posting in Germany because you can only do three years in the spearhead.  So I’m sort of 21 years old and I’m gonna be in Germany for a five year posting…just stuck in the machine.  So I volunteered for the intelligence corps and I went to a group that went to Northern Ireland.

BH: What year was this?

GJ: This was 86-89.

BH: Wow.

GJ: Now that group was a sensitive government unit called [the 14 Security and Intelligence Company, known as 14 Int. or the Det], which is a group that was designed to monitor, track and instigate operations against terrorists [in Northern Ireland].

BH: That must have been a pretty hairy time to be there [during the height of the Troubles].

GJ: Yeah, I mean you don’t wear your uniform, you grow your hair long, drive around in civilian cars.  You become quite adept at…well…manipulation and coercion.  Amongst your colleagues it’s pretty much par for the course on a daily basis.  So you have an agenda that obviously no one is aware of and you can shape it however you need to achieve whatever you need to do…as long as it’s in the rules of force and the rules of engagement laid out by the British government and their policies. But a lot of our stuff was extremely boring.  We’d place devices in things and listen to them for four weeks and then take them out again.  Covertly, you know.  It’s not all James Bond and this kind of stuff, but it gives you an insight into that particular avenue of the military because it’s not something that’s advertised in the portfolio. Most people hear about it by word of mouth or you bump into a mate you haven’t seen in three years and you’re like “What are you doing now? You’ve got long hair!  Are you out?” and they’re like “No I’m in.  Like, in.” [Laughs slyly]

To read about Garth’s life as a covert intelligence operative in Northern Ireland, stay tuned for Life at the Tip of a Spear, Part Two: The Troubles.


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